The New Gatekeepers

Casey Newton on dismantling the platforms and taking Facebook’s cash

August 14, 2019

Most technology journalists were too credulous in the early days of the social web, Verge senior editor Casey Newton said in a recent interview with CJR. Coverage of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube tended to focus on benefits rather than the potential for harassment, abuse, and disinformation. “Yeah, I think we were naive,” Newton told me on CJR’s discussion platform, Galley. “There had never been social networks with billions of users before, and it was difficult to predict the consequences that would come with global scale. The ability for anyone to beam a message instantly to hundreds of millions of people was new in human history, and for a while it wasn’t clear how that power would be used.”

Newton, a former senior writer at CNET and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, said that, for the most part, journalists in Silicon Valley covered social platforms either as technological success stories or focused primarily on them as business stories, writing about IPOs and valuations. Some reporters and academics saw the darker aspects of these networks, Newton said, but for most “that narrative was secondary to the question of whether these businesses would survive and thrive.” That all changed with the 2016 election, he said, when it became obvious how easily social platforms could be exploited by foreign states to spread propaganda. “We saw how weak the platform defenses were,” he said. “What had looked like fun distractions turned out to be far more consequential. And we’ve been catching up to those consequences ever since.”

I asked Newton whether he thought Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey should be held personally responsible for not foreseeing the problems their platforms have caused. (Zuckerberg admitted in an interview with Vox last year that for the first decade of Facebook’s life, all he thought about was the positive aspects of connecting billions of people in real time.) I also asked Newton whether he thought the government should be regulating or breaking up Facebook, Google, and other mega-platforms.

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“I don’t know how to hold them personally responsible,” he said. “Having members of Congress lecture them didn’t seem to have much effect. I can’t imagine that fines would have much effect, either. The way that corporations are supposed to work is that their boards of directors hold executives personally responsible, firing them if the CEOs ever give them cause to. But Facebook has no real independent board—Zuckerberg has a controlling majority of the shares. And while Twitter used to fire its CEOs on a regular basis, it long since stopped exerting any visible role over the company.”

As for the suggestion that Facebook and Google need to be broken up, something a number of members of Congress have floated as a proposal, Newton said he is sympathetic to that argument. “I think YouTube should be an independent company, and I think Facebook should spin out WhatsApp and Instagram,” he said. “The resulting competition would create more innovation for consumers and create more friction for bad actors who want to manipulate our politics. The existence of more social networks could also help slow the spread of ideas, both good and bad—giving us all more time to think before we act.” The platforms argue that breaking them up will make it harder to solve problems like disinformation and harassment, but Newton said it may be necessary: “none of these platforms felt existentially scary until they got really big— which is an argument, to my mind, of once again making them manageably small.”

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While I interviewed Newton, news broke that Facebook plans to pay a select group of publishers as much as $3 million for their content, which would live in a news tab on the app. The fact that Facebook has made similar attempts in the past—involving both news articles and short-form video—only to abandon or change its plans in mid-stream, has made many in the media industry wary of its promises. Some argue that cutting a deal with Facebook privileges certain leading outlets while smaller ones are left struggling to survive, and that partnering with Facebook makes publishers beholden, stuck in a perpetually dysfunctional relationship. But Newton said he is in favor of media outlets taking Facebook’s cash.

“I do think publishers should take the money here,” he said. “Social network ‘carriage fees’ have been a pet issue of mine for a while. Just as cable companies pay for access to high-quality channels, so, too, should social networks pay for access to high-quality journalism.” That kind of deal is a win-win-win, Newton said. “Publishers get money for journalism; readers get news they can trust; and Facebook gets a higher-quality news environment that can bolster our democracy while making the whole site more attractive for readers and advertisers.” As for those who are afraid that the money might vanish, that has always been a risk, said Newton. “Will the money disappear at some point? Probably. But that’s true of so many sources of income that journalists rely on already: ad revenue from Google AMP clicks; inscrutable deals with OTT providers; kindly billionaires; and so on. A publisher’s job in 2019 is to get wherever the getting’s good, and use it to fund the maximum amount of journalism.”

Recently, Newton has written a lot about the hellish work lives of Facebook’s professional content moderators. I asked him how he thinks platforms should solve the problem of moderating billions of comments. “One reason content moderation hasn’t been effective to date is because the workers often are treated badly,” he said. “They’re outsourced, underpaid, they work in conditions that are often filthy, and they’re treated as low-skilled workers even when they’re working on high-stakes problems of civil society.” Some companies treat their moderators better than Facebook does, Newton said, giving them financial and mental health resources to cope with the stress of the job. “That seems like a great place for companies like Facebook and Twitter to start—bring workers in house and treat them as equals. And then let’s check back and see whether the overall quality of work hasn’t improved.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.